Jordan’s troubled relationship with its mosques

Sunday 12/02/2017
Jordanian man reading the Quran at al-Husainy mosque in Amman

London - Jordan appears to be tight­ening its grip on religious messages coming out of its mosques but it may be offer­ing its preachers more sticks than carrots.

Jordanian chief justice Ahmad Hilayel resigned two days after de­livering a Friday sermon during which he rebuked Gulf states for not stepping up their financial aid to Jordan.

“As an imam of this country and one of its scholars, I am address­ing the Gulf’s leaders, kings, emirs, sheikhs and wise men,” he said in a sermon broadcast live on Jordanian state television January 20th from Amman’s King Hussein mosque.

“The (financial) situation has reached a tipping point (in Jor­dan)… so where is your help, where is your money and where are your riches?”

Hilayel said the Jordanian state could collapse if people were to take to the streets, warning that would lead to chaos and destruction as in Syria, Iraq and Libya. “Would you like to see such a scenario (happen in Jordan)?” he asked.

Many criticised Hilayel for em­barrassing the government in front of its financial backers in the Gulf and some took issue with his use of the Friday sermon to deliver a political message. Musa al-Odwan, a retired army general and writer, told Al Jazeera that Hilayel had “no business talking politics” as he is a religious judge.

It is thought that Hilayel agreed to resign to save face rather than being fired.

Jordan’s Religious Affairs Minis­try on January 10th said it had dis­missed 15 mosque preachers and disciplined seven others for refus­ing to take part in nationwide me­morial prayers for Jordanian troops killed in clashes with gunmen who had attacked a tourist site in Karak province.

The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed the December 18th attack in which 11 members of the security forces and three civilians, including a Canadian tourist, were killed. The kingdom has been hit by number of ISIS attacks in the past year.

Observers said Jordan may be changing course from its policy of trying to contain hard-line preach­ers towards a more confrontational approach.

“In the past, the authorities opt­ed for negotiation. Two years ago they released two leading jihadists, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, in an at­tempt to co-opt their followers into their own war on Islamic State,” the Economist wrote in September 2016.

“More recently, though, they have gone for round-ups. Hundreds of cells have been broken up. And so far this year 1,100 Jordanians have been hauled before military courts on terrorism charges,” it added.

However, the government would still have to rely on cooperative preachers to do its bidding in reli­gious circles.

One preacher, Ali al-Halabi, is­sued a religious edict saying that Jordanians must not pray for the souls or attend the funerals of the “terrorists” killed by the army in Karak. Halabi insisted they would still be regarded as Muslims but added that the militants cannot have ordinary burials and the pub­lic must always be reminded of their “deviant creeds”.

The government has installed closed-circuit cameras in a num­ber of mosques, although the vast majority of them are not electroni­cally monitored. Local informants attending prayers are reportedly the most common way for the gov­ernment to keep an eye on places of worship.

Local media reported that the government promised to award bo­nuses to state-appointed mosque preachers who are “distinguished in their work”. The proposal in­cludes studying the preachers’ sermons as part of the evaluation process.

The Prime Ministry’s coordi­nator for human rights, Basil al- Tarawneh, said the Religious Af­fairs Ministry was carrying out recommendations from the Na­tional Centre for Human Rights. The recommendations include fa­miliarising mosque preachers with matters of human rights and “com­bating extremist thought”, the offi­cial Petra news agency said.

A similar initiative is reportedly being coordinated with the Minis­try of Social Development to make mosque preachers more aware of women’s rights.

However, in improvised areas such as Zarqa governorate, where the spread of radicalisation is more likely, officials are warning that the housing accommodations for mosque imams are “not suitable for habitation”.

Many of the accommodations are damp and have no access to sunlight as they are built under the mosques, Youssef al-Shalabi, the head of the religious endowment department in Zarqa, said in late January.

Some of the residents are ex­posed to flooding from nearby mosque toilets, creating a smell that was making some preachers ill.

A government report released last October stated that many of the imams’ children have asthma and other illnesses due to poor housing conditions.

One imam told the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad that he lives with his wife and five children in a 90-sq.-metre residence.

Accommodation is not provided to all imams. Most cannot afford to live elsewhere as they are required to be in the mosque from early hours of the day until late at night due to the timing of prayers.

Such living conditions may put additional strain on the relation­ship between the state and the imams it employs.